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Internet Based Telephony

What is VoIP?

Voice over Internet Protocol, also known as Voice Over IP, or "VoIP", refers to the practice of sending telephone conversations across an IP network such as The Internet.

A number of computer protocols exist which can be used to initiate such calls and carry the voice signal in form of computer audio data. In fact, sending telephone conversations across the internet is very much like sending a real time video stream. Is much simpler in some ways (less data), and harder in other ways (real time).

The primary protocols for initiating VoIP calls are SIP and IAX. SIP, as defined in RFC3261, is an insustrial strength internet standard protocol which describes how to establish communication sessions between two network entities (such as network based telephones). There exists a rapidly growing selection of software and hardware products and open source software compatible with this protocol. You can download free applications for your computer from a number of vendors which will let you place telephone calls to other network telephone for free (tho there is usually a catch of some sort).

IAX is a much simpler proprietary but open protocol by a small software/hardware vendor (Digium) who have chosen to put the core of their VoIP software (called "Asterisk") into the public domain. This software is rapidly gaining an enthusiastic following in the open source community. Using this and other open source software, your average computer geek time can start their own international calling card business with a little extra home grown sloftware to tie it all together and on a $1000 budget, hardware included.

These and other related technologies will do to the telephony world what Unix and its various cousins (such as Linux) have done for computing in general and the internet in particular (where most of the useful and interesting stuff happens on Unix type boxes).

What Is The Big Deal?

The impact of VoIP is going to be similar to that of email or The Web. Email and The Web have profoundly changed the way in which we communicate, they have created and ruined vast business empires, and they have done so at a dizzying pace. They are good examples for what can happen when you take the breaks off technological innovation.

The telephone, while universally and incredibly useful, has not really changed since the the early 1900's. Even cell phones are not really that big a step forward (taking the leish off a dog does not make for a new type of animal). Video phones have been available (and unaffordable) since the 1960's. So, what has changed? First, there is a lack of desire for regulatory control from the (US) government. Second, there is an inability of any one commercial entity to control the speed and direction of innovation. Third, with the advent of broadband internet, there now exists a technological infrastructure which can be used by just about anybody to implement new ideas quickly and cheaply.

Profound Implications

Other than "ridiculously cheap longdistance", what does this mean?

In the long term, voice communication of all types will become, essentially, free. There will be no difference between the telephone company, the cable company, and your ISP. Telephones and computers will merge as telephones get smarter and computers learn how to initiate and answer phone calls. This means that telephones will start to become part of other computerized devices you will be able to call China for free from your television .. or from the front panel of your fridge. It may also mean that you can call your fridge from the store to ask it how much milk there is left. Your house will call you if somebody shows up on your doorstep while you are gone so you can buzz them in. More importantly, your house will know to find you whereever you may be. You will no longer need a phone number. You will be reachable as sip:yourname@yourdomain.com. And that phone "address" will not need to change when you move.

Not all the news is good tho. If our governments do not take the right precautions now, you may find yourself increasingly getting phone calls from some sleazeballs's computer half way around the globe who will want to sell you Viagra, Rolex watches, or offer you a share of his deceased uncle's million dollar government trust accounts ... if only you give them your personal banking information. Criminals will be able to use that same VoIP technology to initiate thousands of calls simultaneously to scan for the best fraud victims using demographic databases and voice stress analysis... and they will be able to do so at literally no cost, and leaving no trace.

In near future practical terms, new business empires will be born while others will be transformed or crumble. As a consumer, your phone bill should continue to shrink, and there will be some really interesting new products and services coming your way.

Last updated Tuesday December 11 2012
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